Posts Tagged 'ethics'

Reading After Virtue

My suggestions on reading Alidair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

Unless you are dedicated in following him through his whole argument on virtue and modern discourse’s loss of it as a coherent category, read MacIntyre’s work in sections:

  • Read chapters 1-3 as an introduction to his project and for his assessment of what is wrong with moral reasoning post-Enlightenment. You’ll find here his critique of emotivism, as well as reason to ponder what moral discourse ought to be doing in society. (And that word ‘ought’ – some interesting discussion of that as well…)
  • Then read chapters 14-18 where he begins to make constructive moves on what virtue is, how it functions in society etc. Practice, narrative and tradition are all discussed here – very important to his overall framework. He also makes his most challenging suggestions for what virtue and integrity in life would be here. The title of the last chapter should whet your appetite for this section: “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.”

Then relax. The middle sections of the book are his reading of virtue throughout the history of philosophy. Unless you are dead set on following him through this, I suggest using this part of the book as a sourcebook for interesting and unexpected readings of philosophy and literature.

  • Kirkegaard & his Enten-Eller in Ch. 4, together with Kant and Hume. In fact, Chs 4-6 as a whole are his assessment of the Enlightenment.
  • Nietzsche and Aristotle in Ch. 9. Aristotle in more depth in 12.
  • Sophocles in Ch. 11 with a nice comparison between Sophocles and Aristotle at the end of 12.
  • Stocism in Ch. 13.
  • Abelard and Aquinas (amazingly, a small role for him! — “a highly deviant Medieval figure”) in Ch. 14, together with an interesting reading of Becket and Henry II.
  • Sartre n Ch. 15.
  • And if nothing else, read Ch. 16 for a surprising and interesting look at Jane Austen (she features at various points, actually). She is the hero of the piece:

It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues which I have tried to identify.

Happy reading!


Narrative and accountability

Some challenging (and sobering) corollaries to MacIntyre’s attention to life as narrative.

I am forever whatever I have been at any time for others — and I may be called upon at any time to answer for it — no matter how changed I may be now. There is no way of founding my identity — or lack of it — on the psychological continuity or discontinuity of the self. The self inhabits a character whose unity is given as the unity of a character.

To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is is, I remarked earlier, to be accountable for the actions and experiences that compose a narratable life. It is, that is, to be open to being asked to give a certain kind of account of what one did or what happened to one or what one witnessed at any earlier point in one’s life…

The other aspect of narrative selfhood is correlative: I am not only accountable, I am one who can always ask others for an account, who can put others to the question. I am part of their story, as they are part of mine. The narrative of any one life is part of an interlocking set of narratives. Moreover, this asking for and giving of accounts itself plays an important part in constituting narratives.

— from After Virtue

More from After Virtue

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for the Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless, he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such an understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of life. Thus the question of the relationship between being a good citizen and being a good man becomes central and knowledge of the variety of human practices, barbarian as well as Greek, provided the factual background to the asking of that question.          — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I like how, later in his discussion of the virtues at Athens, Sophocles (rather than Plato) becomes the hero of Athenian moral discourse, for providing a narrated account of the coherence of virtues in society.

Learning from the social gospel

rauschenbuschThe future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity into history. The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history.

So Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order, published 1912. In his article “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America”, in A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas quotes this and responds: “Christian ethicists after Rauschenbusch will never write a line like that.”

It’s odd and fascinating to watch Hauerwas give a fairly sympathetic appraisal of a man who could write a line like that and who, as Hauerwas notes, more or less identified democracy as the Christianization of politics. The purpose of the essay is not to critique, but to explore a piece of the history of Christian ethics in America and understand its influence.

Rauschenbusch was the greatest, and one of the last, proponents of the Social Gospel movement, which argued against individualistic conceptions of religion and for social embodiment of Christian principles. The kingdom of God was a main theological touchpoint and the prophetic tradition, and its recovery by Jesus after laying dormant, its main Biblical and historical touchpoint. This was the movement partly responsible for Prohibition and for WWJD which, long before acronym bracelets, was the key phrase in social gospeller Charles Sheldon‘s In His Steps.

Hauerwas notes many interesting things about Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. As best I can represent them, one is the combination of “liberal” theology with personal piety: “That liberalism and pietism might be at odds is a later development that is inappropriately applied to Rauschenbusch and his social-gospel friends. Their ‘social work’ was but a continuation of their understanding of the significance of their experience of Christ.” The social gospel was about reform, “but it was equally about prayer, hymns, and devotional practices.” Witness Rauschenbusch’s Prayers of the Social Awakening, which includes prayers for morning, noon and night.

A second interesting point is that for Rauschenbusch, theology was history and ethics were journalism. There was a movement in history running through the prophets, through Jesus, through democracy for the poor and the common good. To do theology was to narrate this historical reality and his ethics were “theologically and morally informed journalism. He narrated the social realities of his day by redescribing them Christianly.” Seeing historical realities of justice embedded in the work of Jesus was essential. I’ll quote Hauerwas at length for an interesting comparison of Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr:

Beckley notes that Rauschenbusch never proposed any universal principles of justice; rather his emphasis on the importance of, as well as his understanding of, the content of justice was grounded in his analysis of socio-historical circumstances. This is certainly the case, but I think what must be further said is that justice does not play a central role in Rauschenbusch’s work. This may appear a scholarly quibble, but it is important if we are to understand the significance of Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice becomes the overriding term for Niebuhr, and for many who follow Niebuhr, exactly because they no longer share Rauschenbusch’s account of Jesus. Put simply, and in a manner that is simplifying, once you no longer have Jesus all you are left with is the dialectic between love and justice. (his emph.)

I can’t pretend to know how well Hauerwas is doing his analysis of Rauschenbusch, but I think it would be interesting to chart the modern incarnations or echoes of the social gospel movement on the axes Hauerwas points out. I’m thinking of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd, of the growing social justice and creation care concerns in conservative Evangelicalism, and the social stances of some of the mainline denominations (my own United Methodist church, e.g.). I have no desire for us to recapitulate Rauschenbusch, but I find the unabashed connection of social concern and practices of piety like prayer, hymns and devotion appealing. Do we see this anywhere now? My guess is yes for conservative evangelicals*; my guess for Sojourners is less so (although I’m not sure). For my own church (and some of the Sojo types too), I think there is a major temptation to subsume piety entirely  into social justice concerns, or (my church!) let them coexist in a sometimes-uncomfortable orthogonality.

A second question: how are current groups grounding their appeals to justice etc? Where are they on the Rauschenbusch-Niebuhr divide — working from a grounding in the historical person of Jesus, or off of principles of love and justice abstracted therefrom? I know this sounds nebulous, but I think it’s important. I don’t know where to place conservative evangelical social concern. My recollections of God’s Politics and my browsing of Sojourners websites convinces me that they are leaning heavily toward principles. At my own church, I think definitely the same — we are not connecting social concern with the particularity of Jesus at all.

Do I read things correctly? And tell me, what ought we be learning from the ways the social gospel reinvents and relocates itself? If we can never repeat with Rauschenbusch that Christianity is getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history, can we say why?


* See here for an interview with Rick Warren in which he discusses the social gospel. Follow links there for a response from Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson, who argues Warren owes more to his great-grandpa than he realizes.

In praise of a significant example

In response to a recent series of posts by Periphery, particularly this one, I’d like to write about a significant example in the sense of the Hauerwas-Willimon quote included in a previous post.  Consider this post to be: (a) in hearty support of Periphery’s claim that “the Cross and all our crosses force us to revise our conceptions of dignity”, (b) reflection on the church being the church well, and (c) most importantly, in praise of a significant example.

B and his wife are members of my church, and were the first people to strike up conversation with me.  Roughly two years ago, he told the church he has ALS.  Now he is in a wheelchair and speech is very difficult for him.  During each service we have a time of sharing of joys during which all are welcome to report praises and concerns to the congregation.  Since his diagnosis, B has shared quite often during this time; he began by reporting on how, since his illness, he has become far more comfortable with and bold about sharing his faith with us and with others.  We now consistently receive frank reports on his condition, particularly about his core muscle strength, increasing limitations on his movement at home, projects to make his house more accessible to him, whether he has had the strength to endure a car ride to visit his daughter at school…  This is all in the form of praise for help he has received from friends, joy at visiting his daughter, and appreciation for his wife.

What is happening here?  A couple of things.  First, when we listen to reports on core muscle strength in a voice we have increasing difficulty understanding, we are forced, as Periphery claims, to revise our conceptions of dignity and ability.  His statements (as well as those of a developmentally disabled couple in the congregation who, interestingly, also frequently share with us) are honored in such a way that I am forced to and given tools to rethink my assessment of his situation.  What I want to particularly point out is that this is happening via a practice (sharing of praises and concerns) that, in its underlying rationale, supposes a community of neediness – it points us toward conceptions of dignity and ability that cohere with such a community and what it proclaims about humanity.  

Second, B is allowing the church to be the church.  He’s allowing us to be true to and recall a vision of a community where our practice of hearing and honoring him are coherent.  We’re forced not only to rethink his situation, but to remember what sort of community we’re supposed to be.  The ethical import of this, for things ranging from improving the church’s accessibility to our stance on euthanasia, is clear; it also ought to remind us again of our self-identification as a community of people in need.  Note that this is not happening through new programming or improved self-understanding, but via a practice ingrained in our worshipping life.  This practice has often been the occasion for less edifying praises, but by keeping it, the church has (maybe unwittingly) exposed itself to B’s faithfulness, which ought to remind us of the truth about ourselves – our contingency, our dependence, our need for the community and God.

The ethical lives of mathematicians

For your comparison:

John von Neumann   alexander-grothendieck
John von Neumann             Alexander Grothendieck

The biographical info linked via the captions above is instructive, I think. (Apologies for the very slow-loading pdf on Grothendieck from the AMS Notices). I find von Neumann’s ethics rather terrifying. Grothendieck is a stark counterpoint, though not much of a model on the whole. Read about Grothendieck at least for the story of his father — the little that seems to be known about him is utterly fascinating!

On this theme, this is very encouraging.

Towards the previous post…

… we have the following:  I’m starting my role as a confirmation mentor today.  At my church, 8th and 9th graders go through Confirmation, which involves a class (twice a month for 2 hrs or so, with homework!), concludes with membership, and includes meeting with a mentor at least once a month through the 6 month process.

Hauerwas and Willimon write about some experiences reformulating a church’s confirmation process in Resident Aliens.  The folks responsible for organizing the process asked themselves what the goal of the process was.  Answers like having the confirmands ‘join the church,’ ‘learn about the church,’ ‘learn about Christ’ were found unsatisfactory.  

Then someone, an ordinary Christian, said, “What we really want out of Confirmation is about a dozen youth who, in their adult lives, come to resemble John Black.”  She had named one of the “saints” of our congregation, an ordinary person who had lived his life in an extraordinarily Christian way. (p. 104)

This caught on, the point being that we want to produce disciples, those who know Christ, rather than know about Christ, who are involved in a way of life together, more than in discovering assent to  beliefs.  Their use of the word “ordinary” is very deliberate – chosen against a notion of ethics primarily done by the individual, needing the effort of a great man or woman.  Instead, ethics rightly done can only be done in community where it is precisely ‘ordinariness’ – the characteristic of those consistently faithful to the community’s way of life – that instructs us:

Learning to be moral is much like learning to speak a language.  You do not teach someone a language … by first teaching them the rules of grammar.  The way most of us learn to speak a language is by listening to others speak and then imitating them.  Most of the time we act as if morality is a matter of rules to be learned.  We seem to think that after we have learned all the right rules (Think for yourself.  First be sure you’re right, then go ahead.  Let your conscience be your guide.  Abortion is wrong. Love your neighbor), we can act morally.

No. You learn to speak by being initiated into a community of language, by observing your elders, by imitating them.  The rules of grammar come later, if at all, as a way of enabling you to nourish and sustain the art of speaking well.  Ethics, as an academic discipline, is simply the task of assembling reminders that enable us to remember how to speak and to live the language of the gospel.  Ethics can never take the place of the community any more than rules of grammar can replace the act of speaking the language.  Ethics is always a secondary enterprise and is parasitic to the way people live in a community.

So the church can do nothing more “ethical” than expose us to significant examples of Christian living.  In fact, our ethical reflection, at its best, is nothing more than reflection on significant examples. (p. 97)

The Confirmation program that was developed relied on mentorship, and the basic philosophy that we learn by looking over the shoulder of a significant example.  Required activities for the mentoring pair included:

  • reading and reacting to Luke together
  • attending and reflecting on services together
  • looking at and discussing the church budget together
  • attending a committee meeting together
  • explaining “Why I like being a (insert denomination) Christian”
  • attending a funeral and a wedding, and discussing where God was in these services
  • volunteering for at least 15hrs together

I kid you not, dear reader, not 24 hours after reading this, I was asked by one of our church staff (who, I later found out, was scraping the bottom of the barrel for volunteers) to be a mentor.  Excited enough at these prospects to suppress my worries about being a significant example, I said yes. At our meeting last week we were told we were to help the confirmands explore their faith, we were not to tell them what to believe, we were to help them talk out their own questions and find their own way…

Bummer.  So my plan now is to proceed on the Hauerwas-Willimon model and ignore what I was told.  I also need to figure out if activities like those described above are already being done through the confirmation class itself, and how many I can talk my confirmand and his parents into. Suggestions are welcome. Stay tuned…

UPDATE:  As I wrote this, he called me up to push our meeting back to next week.  Indicating, of course, that the greatest threat to all of this is not the dominion of principalities and powers, but the tyranny of the flute recital.